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Posts from April 2008


Obama really sticking to his guns on gas prices

Good for him:

I do wish the bullet points at the end mentioned more than just a plan for alternative fuels... something like:

  • Take the train or bus instead of driving
  • Move somewhere you can walk to work or to the store
Track Twenty-Nine makes a similar point.

Still, I'm extremely impressed with Obama's excellent position and fortitude on this issue. It's fairly clear that President Obama would have the best energy, transportation, and urban policies of the three remaining candidates.

Public Spaces

Klingle gets the ax

As predicted, the Committee on Public Works and the Environment voted 3-2 (Brown, Cheh, and Alexander versus Graham and Bowser) not to spend lots of local money to rebuild a high-speed bypass through Rock Creek Park that we've done fine without for 18 years.

Bowser wants to drive
her Kart in the park!

Jim Graham is disappointed, and wants to hear from citizens. I encourage anybody who thinks parks should be for recreation, not highways, to attend the meeting or email

Thursday, May 8
6:30 pm
John A. Wilson Building (the Council building)
1350 Pennsylvania Ave NW (Pennsylvania between 14th and 13½th)
Metro: Metro Center or Federal Triangle

Update: According to City Paper, Cheh also added an amendment allocating $2 million "for environmental remediation of Klingle Valley and construction of a recreation trail." Graham still plans to fight for the road. And Mayor Fenty is fine with whatever the Council decides.


Gas prices: Obama still gets it; Friedman slams Clinton

Barack Obama reiterated his belief that the solution to high gas prices is more rail transit. At a lunch with a Beech Grove, Indiana couple (one of whom works for Amtrak, the other in a local hospital), the candidate had this to say:

Some friends meet a pro-transit
The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service. One of the things I have been talking about for awhile is high speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities—Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis. They are not that far away from each other. Because of how big of a hassle airlines are now, there are a lot of people if they had the choice, it takes you just about as much time if you had high speed rail to go the airport, park, take your shoes off.

This is something that we should be talking about a lot more. We are going to be having a lot of conversations this summer about gas prices. And it is a perfect time to start talk about why we don't have better rail service. We are the only advanced country in the world that doesn't have high speed rail. We just don't' have it. And it works on the Northeast corridor. They would rather go from New York to Washington by train than they would by plane. It is a lot more reliable and it is a good way for us to start reducing how much gas we are using. It is a good story to tell.

Meanwhile, Thomas Friedman calls out Hillary and McCain's shameful pandering on the gas tax:
It is great to see that we finally have some national unity on energy policy. Unfortunately, the unifying idea is so ridiculous, so unworthy of the people aspiring to lead our nation, it takes your breath away. Hillary Clinton has decided to line up with John McCain in pushing to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for this summer's travel season. This is not an energy policy. This is
money laundering: we borrow money from China and ship it to Saudi Arabia and take a little cut for ourselves as it goes through our gas tanks. What a way to build our country.

When the summer is over, we will have increased our debt to China, increased our transfer of wealth to Saudi Arabia and increased our contribution to global warming for our kids to inherit. The McCain-Clinton gas holiday proposal is a perfect example of what energy expert Peter Schwartz of Global Business Network describes as the true American energy policy today: "Maximize demand, minimize
supply and buy the rest from the people who hate us the most."

Good for Barack Obama for resisting this shameful pandering.

Unfortunately, Friedman doesn't follow Obama in endorsing the best solution to high gas prices: transit.


Silver Line back on track

The Post is reporting that DOT Secretary Mary Peters will approve the Metro extension to Dulles, reversing her and the FTA's earlier surprise objections. It must be because I asked her about it on Monday!


Breakfast links: skyrocketing gas price edition

Even Californians can do it: Transit villages like one in Hayward, CA (on BART) are becoming popular and making converts out of people who would never have imagined living without a car. SF Chronicle via Richard Layman.

Please, God, let us keep sprawl: Some people are responding to the gas crisis by using prayer, reports Streetsblog. Meanwhile, truckers responded to pricey gas by wasting it.

Drop out already, Hillary: Hillary Clinton is buying into McCain's bad ideas by calling for a gas tax holiday which would not solve the problem and just emphasizes the framing that our solution to energy shortages is to make gas cheaper. Obama, to his credit, is standing firm in calling it the bad idea it is.

Google did it first: Companies from Schering-Plough to Microsoft are rolling out Wi-Fi-enabled commuter buses, kids are putting off learning to drive and transit ridership is at the highest levels since the interstate highways were built. Via Freakonomics.


Preservation versus taxidermy in Takoma Park

On the post about dwelling density, Alex B. writes,

The idea of preserving an evolving thing (a city) is somewhat troubling to me. We preserve things that are dead (like animals taken to the taxidermist, for example). Preservation gets caught up in the idea of one sudden snapshot of a city that's suddenly worth preserving - an inaccurate perception, in my mind. All I can think of is little cities (almost as if they were snow globes) encased in jars of formaldehyde.

Cities ought to be alive. I much prefer the term and concept of adaptive re-use. How can we keep the historic elements intact, maintain that connection to the past, and still adapt the structure and the neighborhood to a modern use?

This dynamic is at work in Takoma Park today. Activists there cut their teeth blocking the North Central Freeway, which would have run right through the neighborhood. Then they fought to preserve beautiful Victorian houses from being torn down and replaced with bland, square apartment houses, winning historic districts in both DC and Maryland.

That freeway was worth fighting because it would have created vast expanses of concrete devoid of humanity and ruined the street life. Now, the same activists, "caught up in one snapshot of a city," want to retain the large, bland WMATA parking lot that separates the Metro station from the neighborhood. Where once that parking lot was a lively commercial street, WMATA proposes to build a village green and a few blocks of townhouses without taking away the existing parking or bus loading. That would restore a streets in the area where they once existed. To some, however, townhouses are just as noxious as a 12-lane freeway.

Must we save Takoma Park from this?

Richard Layman writes about the generational difference among activists between those who fought to stabilize their neighborhoods as cities were shrinking, and those who now strive to improve cities as they grow again. The guide who led our tour for WalkingTown DC (a member of the earlier generation) referred to the "small town" feel of the neighborhood, and residents' desire to keep the town small. The City of Takoma Park, Maryland has over 17,000 residents. WMATA wants to build 90 townhouses. Are new residents so undesirable?

Our guide also disputed the value of two-car garages under each townhouse. On that, we agree completely. Transit-oriented townhouses next to a Metro station need one per unit at most; shared spaces and ample Zipcars would be even better. Fewer spaces could alleviate residents' reasonable concerns about heavy traffic. But if residents just oppose more residents, that's neighborhood taxidermy, not preservation.

Below, more photos of Takoma Park from the walking tour.

Formerly the Takoma railroad depot The historic Victorian Takoma railroad depot was torn down. This building now stands in roughly its place.
Cady Lee mansion The Cady Lee mansion. Some plans for the North Central Freeway would have destroyed this building.
Not so historic The houses next to the Cady Lee mansion were not so lucky. These buildings replaced them.
Once a lively street The WMATA parking lot, once a commercial street (the picture she is holding up depicts the original stores).
WMATA parking lot Activists want to keep this parking lot from becoming a village green and 90 townhouses.
Bungalow One of many bungalow-style houses in Takoma and Takoma Park.
Art Deco stores The commercial strip of Old Town Takoma Park, about three blocks from Metro.
CVS still life with cones Between Old Town Takoma Park and the Metro station are a few blocks of generic suburban development, like this non-historic CVS and parking lot. Photo by Susan NYC on Flickr.


Suburbanites enjoy amenities but have no time for them

The Post asked readers to write about what they loved about their homes, and Marc Fisher has a summary. Everyone, city and suburb, enjoyed public spaces and contact with neighbors. Only the manner of that contact varied from county to county, with more neighborhood restaurants and churches in Prince George's, more intercultural interaction in Montgomery.

Fairfax residents love nature but seem least happy overall, lamenting the congestion, long commutes, rising housing prices and lack of Metro. "Many suburban residents love where they live but labor to pry open hours in which they can take advantage of what they've worked so hard to be near. City residents lose out on amenities such as libraries and recreation programs, and on essentials such as strong schools, but gain something some find equally precious: time."


Multi-family conversions, alley and accessory dwellings under attack

Mark your calendars for next Monday, May 5th, 6:30 pm. Smart Growth needs you.

Alley dwelling in Treto Way NW.

May 5th is the next meeting of the Low & Moderate Density zoning meeting. The attitudes of the citizens who attend this group will determine whether DC's zoning code makes it easier or harder for existing buildings to house more people.

Should it stay legal for property owners to add rentable units in their basements? Should we limit the number of condos one can make out of an existing building? Should alley dwellings be legal? Last week's Historic Structures meeting comprised many people who want to restrict most of this.

Under the rubric of historic preservation, they pushed for rules which would essentially prevent new residents from coming into old neighborhoods. And while we should preserve worthy buildings including the townhouses in our historic neighborhoods, increasing unit density without much changing the buildings is an important way to allow people to live in our city at reasonable prices.

There weren't very many people fighting for the don't-let-anything-ever-change position. But there were almost no people fighting for an alternative viewpoint either. These meetings aren't large—about 20 people total at the last one, with maybe five doing most of the talking. But these meetings are far from useless. If most of the people in the group push for a particular change, then the Office of Planning can't ignore the consensus.

For example, right now someone can convert their townhouse in an R-4 district (like Capitol Hill or Mount Pleasant) into a multi-family building as long as they have a 2700-square-foot lot and each unit is at least 900. But the group had been pushing to limit this to bigger buildings and fewer units in historic districts, which would restrict the people that can move into a neighborhood. In their draft recommendations, the Office of Planning folks suggested that the issue be referred to the Low & Moderate Density working group to come up with a city-wide rule instead of one rule for historic areas. Since this rule doesn't have anything to do with changing the building itself, it's hard to see how restricting it would "change the character of the historic district" as some argued, unless having more and often younger people in your neighborhood is an adverse impact to your neighborhood character.

Despite OP's recommendation, almost everyone in the room supported changing the rule to allow only two units per building. I was the only one to speak against it, and without my opposition, OP would have been forced to put the rule in. Instead, it got pushed off to the Low & Moderate Density group.

But the same people are going to be at the Low & Moderate Density group too. When that group considers whether to relax the rules against alley apartments, we need to be there to support them. When the group considers how many condos one can make out of an existing building, we need to keep them from excessively restricting the number. Even five people at that meeting would tip the balance. I hope you will come.

Low and Moderate Density working group
Monday, May 5th
6:30-8:30 pm
441 4th St (One Judiciary Square)
South Lobby, 11th Floor

Public Spaces

Don't call it a park

NCPC, NPS, and the DC government have a new site for a new parks partnership, CapitalSpace. The alliance aims to improve DC's smaller parks, link larger parks with greenways, and balance the various demands on the major parks.

However, I have a major quibble with this map, which lists the total acreage of parks in DC broken down by NPS parks, DC parks, and other open space (like the Zoo) and by neighborhood. Many of the so-called parkland isn't parkland at all. NPS lists as "parkland" such areas as Rock Creek Parkway/Beach Drive, Canal Road/Clara Barton Parkway, the giant parking lots east of RFK Stadium, and the ramp spaghetti area between the Kennedy Center, Foggy Bottom, and the Lincoln Memorial.

These areas aren't available for protecting nature, passive enjoyment, or active recreation. They're only available for driving. Whether you think these areas should be roads or not (I don't), it's disingenous to call it a "park". Without this land counted, the statistics would be even worse, and the disparity between parkland in the center city versus the outer reaches would be even greater.

"Parkway" and "parking lot" may have "park" in their names, but just because the National Park Service owns the land, a highway is a highway and not a park.


Peters: promote local control and eschew silos, except on transit and gas taxes

US Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters spoke at the Brookings Institution today, giving an overview of her thoughts on the future of transportation. Peters has been courageously promoting new ideas, like congestion pricing, that we really need or at least need to thoughtfully consider. Her market-oriented solutions are a potentially revolutionary alternative to the build-more-roads dogma of many past Secretaries of Transportation.

US Transportation Secretary
Mary Peters

Still, some dogmatic ideology still shows through. Peters reflexively argues against the gas tax while the very principles in her speech support it. She argues for more local control and results-oriented decisionmaking while using non-results-oriented concerns to block the locally-desired Silver Line expansion.

Peters began by relaying powerful statistics that build the case for congestion pricing—or, as Newt Gingrich suggested she call it, a "convenience fee". Americans spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, traffic that represents a $72 billion drain on the economy. Congestion pricing in the 98 largest metropolitan areas, on the other hand, would generate $120 billion a year in revenues.

Most agree that the current system doesn't work very well. Congress directs significant transit money to pet pork projects and "bridges to nowhere". Federal transportation dollars not allocated with earmarks go into discrete pots of money that can only be used for a specific purpose, like highway construction or small transit lines, "modal silos" that prevent broader thinking or local decisionmaking. This "stovepiped approach," Peters argued, is "more focused on process than performance."

Peters wants to focus on three main areas: Transportation safety, the interstate highway system and a few other key national corridors, and mobility in metropolitan areas. Congestion pricing falls into the third category. The second, as you may note, assumes that highways represent the best way to move goods while making no mention of intercity rail. When I asked about this, she replied that getting away from "modal silos" will allow "incentivizing other investment" in high congestion corridors like Boston-DC. But by listing the interstate system, rather than all modes of intercity travel, as her top priority, it's clear that silos aren't completely purged from Peters' thinking.

Secretary Peters strongly supports local decisionmaking, using federal dollars to "encourage local officials to pursue sustainable congestion strategies" like congestion pricing and HOT lanes. We need to have federal money "leverage investment by states and localities." Every dollar spent could bring in three or four in local and private money and "tap into the $400 billion in private capital available for intrastructure." To open the faucet on that money, Peters wants to remove federal restrictions that prohibit tolls on many roads, expand pubilc-private partnerships and "allow jurisdictions greater flexibility."

A former county executive from Buffalo, New York asked about our decades of overbuilding infrastructure that has created sprawl, to which Peters reemphasized the value of local control. Of course, local control is a great principle until Virginia decides their top priority is Metro expansion to Dulles, at which point the focus on process roared back as Peters and the FTA raised their eleventh hour concerns about WMATA, MWAA, and other issues that are more about process than performance.

Several questioners asked about her opposition to the gas tax. "If the American people were clamoring for gas tax increase, we would have one," she declared. But, asked one questioner, why would they accept a congestion charge which the American people don't seem excited about either? Peters feels the difference is that the congestion charges (or "convenience fees") go directly to local government, and people support pricing when they know the revenues will fund local improvements. That's entirely true, but a gas tax could just as easily be dedicated to local improvements if the tax revenue went to local governments.

Peters also emphasized the importance of reducing dependence on foreign oil, through more efficient vehicles and other means. A gas tax, therefore, is "contrary to our environmental goals." I can't figure out what she means: economics tells us if we tax something, people will do less of it. Taxing fuel directly, therefore, is the most immediate way to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Despite the occasional Republican talking point showing through, Peters is clearly very committed to solving the problem of congestion and even the environmental impacts of driving, even if her solution is to make sure people can drive faster at higher cost rather than providing alternatives to driving altogether. Peters said that HOT lanes and congestion cordons were really only first steps to a better, longer-term solution of having a "VMT-based form of payment," which is "convenience priced" in the highest congestion areas and lower in other areas. That's a great direction to go, even if a gas tax and construction of rail lines, despite Peters' opposition, are equally great steps to take along with congestion pricing.

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